EVEN allowing for the circumstances, this was a poor performance from Glasgow. True, they had already qualified for a home semi-final while Ulster needed a bonus-point win to stay in the play-off hunt, but even so, the scale and nature of this defeat had to hurt.
The Warriors were the better team for the latter part of the first half and the early stages of the second, but over the piece were far too error-prone in their decision-making and handling. Callum Gibbins, who scored both his side’s tries, showed exemplary commitment as always, but too many of his team-mates looked woefully short of their best form, and some will surely pay with their places for next week’s 1872 Cup match. Ali Price, for one, needs to rediscover his incisiveness, while Huw Jones may be a doubt in any case after failing an HIA in the first half.
Ulster deserve great credit for the fighting spirit that gave them their fourth, vital try four minutes into stoppage time, but the odds are still against them as they try to overtake Edinburgh in Conference B. They must take another bonus-point win against Munster, and rely on Glasgow denying Richard Cockerill’s side even a losing bonus at Murrayfield. Stranger things have happened, but with home advantage Munster will be favourites to win their game, while Edinburgh will also fancy their chances.
“We talked about looking after the ball in the second half and playing a bit more ball in hand,” Gibbins said. “But we didn’t do it well enough.
“Ulster are a great side and they punished us. Whenever we gave them the ball, they got down there and they converted points.
“Pretty disappointed. As I just said to the boys, if we want to go well in these finals coming up and against Edinburgh next week, we’ve got to be better than that or else we’re not going to win. Simple as that.”
Ulster had been forced into a late change, with captain Iain Henderson dropping out as his wife had given birth overnight. Kieran Treadwell took over in the second row, Robbie Diack came onto the bench, and hooker Robert Herring took over as skipper. Yet despite the loss of one of their most influential players, the home team got into their stride immediately, and took a fifth-minute lead through a John Cooney penalty before Glasgow had even got out of their own half.
With four tries required, Ulster were soon back on the attack, and Cooney got the first of the hoped-for quartet off the back of a five-metre scrum. It was a well-executed score by the scrum-half, but the attacking position only arose because the Warriors had failed to clear their lines after what would have been a scoring pass from Luke Marshall to Charles Piutau went into touch. Cooney converted his own try to take his team into double figures.
Towards the midway point of the half, a good midfield break by captain Gibbins at last gave the Warriors good attacking position, and when the Ulster defence killed the ball after halting Tim Swinson, Finn Russell opened their account with a penalty. If that was no more than a minor sign of encouragement, a far greater one soon appeared when Gibbins grabbed their first try, which Russell converted to level the scores. Fraser Brown made the crucial break after solid work by the pack, and the flanker was up in support to accept the scoring pass and touch down behind the posts.
The visitors kept up the momentum, and came within centimetres of taking the lead when Alex Dunbar was hauled down just short of the line after taking a Price pass from a five-metre scrum. Jones had to be replaced by Nick Grigg after being thrown to the ground by Jacob Stockdale, and the replacement centre immediately showed up well in attack as Glasgow continued to dominate.
Ulster hit back in the last minutes before the break, however, and Cooney restored their lead with a penalty in front of the posts after a counter-attack which should have given them their second try. There was still time for another offensive, and when this one too ended illegally, Cooney added another three points.
It was the scrum-half’s last involvement, as he was replaced by Paul Marshall for the start of the second half, while Zander Fagerson came on in the Glasgow front row. The Scotland tighthead played his part in a commanding start to the second 40, which saw the Warriors close to within a point when, after a penalty was kicked to touch, Gibbins got his second try off the back of the resulting lineout. Russell’s conversion attempt was wide, leaving Ulster in the lead by a point.
After 55 minutes, that became eight points, as flanker Nick Timoney squeezed in at the left corner for a try that John McPhillips converted. Glasgow again only had themselves to blame after losing possession deep inside their own half, but it was Jacob Stockdale who made the difference in attack with the half-break in the build-up.
The hints of fatigue that had crept into the Ulster game disappeared as the home side chased the two tries in the remaining 25 minutes. They soon got one, with Sean Reidy finishing off after Charles Piutau had opened up a bit of space. McPhillips missed the conversion this time, but from out of nowhere Ulster were 13 points clear with the game apparently in the bag.
A McPhillips penalty added another three with a dozen minutes to go to make the win even more secure, and there were still eight on the clock when Ulster were awarded another kickable penalty. This time it went to touch, and when they were given another penalty that went the same way. This time, however, the Glasgow defence did their work legally, winning a penalty of their own for holding on.
There was still more than enough time for Ulster to attack again, though, and, after being awarded a penalty going into stoppage time, they eventually got that vital score through Timoney – in the right corner this time, with the flanker powering his way past three defenders. Debutant substitute Angus Curtis missed the conversion, but that was irrelevant: the improbable comeback attempt is still alive.
Ulster: C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, R Kane, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, N Timoney, S Reidy, J Deyset. Substitutes: R Best, K McCall, T O’Toole, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, A Curtis, T Bowe.
Glasgow: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, A Dunbar, L Masaga; F Russell, A Price; A Allan, F Brown, S Halanukonuka, S Cummings, T Swinson, R Harley, C Gibbins, M Fagerson. Substitutes: G Turner, R Grant, Z Fagerson, G Peterson, M Smith, H Pyrgos, P Horne, N Grigg.
Scorers: Ulster: Tries: Cooney, Timoney 2, Reidy. Cons: Cooney, McPhillips. Pens: Cooney 3, McPhillips.
Glasgow: Tries: Gibbins 2. Con: Russell. Pen: Russell.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, 8-0, 10-0, 10-3, 10-8, 10-10, 13-10, 16-10 half-time, 16-15, 21-15, 23-15, 28-15, 31-15, 36-15.
Referee: S Berry (South Africa).